Phillies need a hitter behind Howard

Oakland's Josh Willingham is hitting .235 against lefthanded pitching with five home runs. (Ben Margot/AP)
Oakland's Josh Willingham is hitting .235 against lefthanded pitching with five home runs. (Ben Margot/AP)
Posted: July 14, 2011

There are 17 shopping days left until the trade deadline, and you just know Charlie Manuel can't wait to see what Ruben Amaro Jr. is going to bring him this year.

As usual, the Phillies manager has not been shy about his wish list. Manuel wants a righthanded hitter and not just any righthanded hitter. He wants a righthanded hitter who is better than any of the other righthanded hitters he has on his roster.

"I don't want something that we got. I want something better," is the way Manuel put it before a game in St. Louis last month.

Manuel's general manager, of course, has been extremely generous in the past. Amaro has given Manuel one thoroughbred after another, and now there is margin for error even when a stud like Roy Oswalt breaks down.

Still, you can't blame Manuel for being greedy. He sees another World Series title within the Phillies' grasp, and he knows the part of the game that makes his mouth water the most was by far the team's weakest link during the first half of the season.

In theory, it should not be that difficult to upgrade an offense that has scored three or fewer runs 48 times and two or fewer 30 times. In reality, it's a much taller task for Amaro than adding Cliff Lee and Oswalt at the previous two deadlines because the current state of hitting in baseball is as wretched as the state of pitching was a decade ago.

What Manuel needs most is someone to produce behind cleanup hitter Ryan Howard, who has been like a tortoise without a shell through the first 91 games this season. Manuel has used seven players to hit in the fifth spot, and they have batted a combined .229 with a .313 on-base percentage. The Phillies have received 17 doubles, three triples, nine home runs, and 55 RBIs from the fifth spot in the order.

The RBI total is respectable. Nothing else is even acceptable. Only five teams in baseball have a lower batting average from the fifth spot in the order, and the Phillies' 28 extra-base hits from the fifth spot are tied for 19th in the big leagues.

Ben Francisco batted fifth a team-high 35 times in the first half and hit .210 with one home run and 15 RBIs. He also batted .208 against left-handed pitching.

Raul Ibanez batted .279 out of the fifth spot with seven doubles, six home runs, and 28 RBIs, but his .205 batting average and .237 on-base percentage against lefthanded pitching makes the Phillies way too vulnerable to left-handed relievers with Howard and Chase Utley hitting directly in front of him.

Toward the end of the first half, Manuel seemed to settle upon a lineup with Shane Victorino hitting fifth until the centerfielder had a great fall in Toronto that sent him and his sore thumb to the disabled list.

In truth, Manuel's best batting order probably looks like this: Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Utley, Howard, Victorino, Ibanez, Domonic Brown, Carlos Ruiz, and the pitcher.

John Mayberry Jr. won some support to supplant Francisco as the extra outfielder with some strong power displays late in the first half, but he has batted .105 (2 for 19) from the fifth spot and .245 against lefties so far this season.

Victorino is hitting .390 against lefthanded pitching with a .500 on-base percentage. The switch-hitting centerfielder has five home runs batting righthanded, so maybe he's the No. 5 hitter Manuel is looking for when the opposing manager starts waving in lefthanded relievers the way Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez did last weekend.

Still, you get the impression Manuel has someone else in mind for that righthanded hitter, especially with Polanco nursing a sore back that has dropped his average 124 points since the end of April.

It's safe to say that Manuel's wish list has not changed since that June day in St. Louis. You know he wants a fifth hitter who will force opposing lefties to throw Howard a few more fastballs, because facing a steady diet of breaking balls, the first baseman has failed to hit a home run against a lefty so far this season.

We've all heard the names that have been thrown around.

There is Josh Willingham in Oakland. He's hitting .235 against lefthanded pitching but does have five home runs.

There is Michael Cuddyer in Minnesota. His .369 average and .470 on-base percentage against lefties would be an incredible addition. In case you have not noticed, however, the Twins are very much in the AL Central race even after a miserable start.

There is Carlos Beltran of the New York Mets. He's intriguing because he has had a resurrection season. He's hitting only .232 against lefties this season, but he has eight home runs against them. His career average against lefties is .291.

There is Ryan Ludwick in San Diego. He's hitting .276 with three home runs against lefties this season but is only a .236 career hitter against lefthanders.

Amaro, of course, is on the record as saying he'd rather add a bullpen arm than a righthanded bat.

So maybe the general manager can acquire Ludwick and Padres closer Heath Bell.

That would make himself, his manager, and a lot of fans very happy this trade-deadline season.


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover

at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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